Fear of Invasion from Cuba
Since he had come to power in 1959, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro was aware of several U.S. attempts to oust him. First, was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles in 1961. Second, was a U.S. military exercise in 1962. The Armed Forces conducted a mock invasion of a Caribbean island to overthrow a fictitious dictator whose name, Ortsac, was Castro spelt backwards. Additionally, the U.S. was drafting a plan to invade Cuba (Operation Mongoose). The mock invasion and invasion plan were devised to keep Castro nervous. Finally, the CIA had also been running covert operations throughout Cuba trying to damage the Castro government. Consequently, Castro was convinced the U.S. was serious about invading Cuba.
By 16th October, 1962, America had real proof that the Soviet Union were delivering nuclear missiles to the military basis in Cuba. Khrushchev had lied and now Kennedy had the proof. He had to decide what to do next. Kennedy was only 45 years old and now the future of the entire planet rested in his hands. Kennedy did not want to look weak like he did with the Berlin Wall but he also didn't want to force the situation into an actual confrontation.
"It isn't the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth or fifth steps, and we don't want to go to the sixth because there is no-one around to do so."
It was now the that the decision had to be made. The men who it involved however, had a clash in personality. America's opinion of Kennedy until now was that he was too young and inexperienced to be President. Yet, he was proud of America. He, like most of America, hated communism and wanted to prevent the spread of it. America knew that Khrushchev way strong and proud, the same as Kennedy, but older and possibly wiser. He was deeply commited to communism and both these men realised the dangers and that they were on the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union saw Kennedy as a failure. He had done nothing for the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs incident had been a disaster. There were under the impression that Khrushchev could take advantage of this inexperienced, young man. In reality both men were strong and very stubborn and neither wished to back down out of any situation. Up until this period in time the Arms Race had been a race to demonstrate who had the most powerful weapons. Now, however, the situation may have risen but these weapons may have to be used. Kennedy had many items to consider. He wanted to contain communism and also to remove the threat of nuclear war from Cuba. He wanted to remove Soviet forces from Cuba who could use Cuba as a base from invasion. On top of all this he also has to maintain his credibility as a President.
It was now obvious to all that the Soviets were taking numerous ships to complete the firing ability. Now, in Kennedy's consideration he had to work out why the Soviet Union desired to place weapons of mass destruction on Cuba. There were many possibilities for this action. First of all this was the Soviets way of spreading Communism. Cuba was their new ally. The Soviet Union and Cuba had a common enemy - America. (Cuba felt oppressed by them and the Soviets were caught up in the Cold War with them. The Soviets also wished to be the supreme rulers of the world and by humiliating America they could succeed in gaining this title. The Soviets wished to bridge the missile gap i.e. America had the ability to strike the Soviet Union from home base whereas the Soviets didn't have this capablity. America had its missile basis in Turkey and the Soviets therefore also wanted its' missile basis within striking distance. America also had the submarines that could fire a Polaris missile which could not be detected. The Soviets didn't have this, see source (A2i) and (A2ii) The Soviets could use the missiles on Cuba as a bargaining tool to get the Americans to remove their missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev could've been trying to improve his credibility in the Kremlin and also in China, a fellow communist country. Khrushchev could also be trying to prove that he's a force to be reckoned with and he could possibly believe that he would be successful against the inexperienced Kennedy.
Kennedy decided to appoint an executive commitee called EXCOM to aid him and give him advice which he felt would help him avoid another disaster as had happened with the Bay of Pigs. The leading body in this commitee was the President's younger brother, Attorney General, Robert.F.Kennedy. For 6 days starting from 6th October, Kennedy and his advisers discussed the options open to the U.S. They met daily at the White House, throughout the crisis. President Kennedy wanted to explore every possible course of action.
These are the options and considerations that Kennedy had:-
- Do nothing and allow missiles to be based in Cuba. This is an advantage because it gives time to prepare a response however, it was unpopular in America, threat to American security and it was a major success for the USSR
- He could attack Cuba/USSR with nuclear weapons. This would allow Kennedy to strike first before the USSR attacks America in the same way but it could be a full-scale nuclear war where millions would be killed and possibly the end of humanity
- Kennedy could do an air strike against the Cuban missile bases which would destroy missiles and sites already in Cuba but it would result in a war with Cuba and perhaps the USSR and there's also no guarantee that all the sites would be destroyed
- He could blockade Cuba with the American Navy where no Russian ships are allowed through. This would limit the pressure and the USSR wold be forced to fire the first shot to break the blockade. However, this would cause a conflict with the USSR instead of Cuba and the USSR might do the same to West Berlin
- An air attack against all military sites in Cuba could be carried out therefore destroying missiles and sites already in Cuba but there would be a direct confilct with Cuba and possibly the USSR and there would be alot of American casualties
- There could be an invasion of Cuba by US Armed Forces who would destroy all missiles and sites but again, the would result in a war with Cuba and perhaps the USSR. There would be US (an estimated 25,000) and the USSR might invade West Berlin
They did in the end manage to narrow the options down. First of all a support for invasion grew but Robert Kennedy insisted on the non - aggressive option, that of a partial naval blockade. This option would give Kennedy extra time to consider other options. It was non - aggresive so if the Soviets attacked they would be the aggressors and Kennedy would rise in the world opinion. Then America could retaliate, as their naval forces are stronger they would beat the Soviets. On 22nd October, 1962, President Kennedy announced his decision. He declared that the island of Cuba was under quarantine.
"I have directed that the following initial steps be taken: first, a strict 'quarantine' on all offensive military equiptment under shipment to Cuba. All ships, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, (will) be turned back."
Source B3 shows how Kennedy came to hjis decision despite support for a more violent action. The blockade began on 24th October. Cuba was circled by 100 warships while America made other military moves. In the meantime, France's plans on invasion of Cuba was drawn up in the White House and all key officials were moved out of Washington D.C. as a precaution. 52 bombers, armed with nuclear bombs, flew patrols. Rules for stopping and boarding the Russian ships were agreed between politicians and America's naval forces. America was supported in their actions by their allies in South America and Europe. These actions also suggested to the Soviets that the Americans were contemplating launching a nuclear weapon on or near the Soviet Union. This action had the desired effect. The Soviet ships either stopped dead in the water or turned around. The Soviets had not entered direct conflict but the crisis was not over. U-2 photographs were showing the missile basis almost ready.
On Friday, 26th October Kennedy recieved a letter from Khrushchev. He offered to remove the missiles from Cuba if Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and end the blockade. Khrushchev also made it clear that he wanted to avoid the horrors of nuclear war. This letter offered the first hope of a peaceful solution to the situation:-
"You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dreaded forces our two countries possess. I propose we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear."
That same day one U-2 spy plane was shot down, another flew off course over Russia and a low-level reconnaissance mission was shot at over Cuba, First, a U-2 on a "routine air sampling mission" over western Alaska picked the wrong star to navigate by and flew off course into Soviet airspace. When he realized his mistake, the pilot immediately radioed for help. The rescue station operator was able to give him directions to turn his plane onto the right course. By that time, however, the Soviets had detected the U-2 and scrambled MiG fighters to intercept the spy plane. The Americans also scrambled their F-102 fighters to provide cover for the U-2. The F-102s, prepared for action, had been armed with nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles. Fortunately, the U-2 left Soviet air space in time and two fighter groups never met. Upon hearing the news at the White House, Secretary of Defense McNamara "turned absolutely white, and yelled hysterically, `This means war with the Soviet Union.'" The Soviets, he feared, could have interpreted the flight as a reconnaissance mission precluding a nuclear strike. President Kennedy's reaction was much more calm and controlled. He laughed slightly and remarked, "There is always some son of a [-----] who doesn't get the word." Next, around noon, news reached EXCOM that a U-2 had been shot down over Cuba. Major Rudolph Anderson's spy plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile and crashed in the island's eastern jungle. EXCOM interpreted the action as a planned escalation of the situation by the Kremlin. The order to launch the missile, however, did not come from Moscow. Rather, it was a Soviet commander in Cuba who gave the command. Khrushchev now worried that he had lost control of his forces. EXCOM had previously decided that if an American reconnaissance plane was downed, the Air Force would retaliate by bombing the offending site. Now that it had happened, the Joint Chiefs, who had been pressing for permission to bomb Cuba, pressed even harder. Secretary McNamara laid out the situation plain and simple:
"We must be in a position to attack quickly. We've been fired on today. We're going to send surveillance aircraft in tomorrow. Those are going to be fired on without question. You can't do this very long. You're going to lose airplanes and will be shooting up Cuba quite a bit. We're going to lose airplanes everyday. So you can't just maintain this position very long. We must be prepared to attack Cuba quickly."
General Taylor insisted that no "later than Monday morning, the 29th" the U.S. should strike Cuba. Kennedy chose not to attack, but to wait for another plane to be shot down. Then he would order the destruction of the SAM site. Years later, McGeorge Bundy cited the two U-2 instances as "reminders that crisis managers don't always manage everything."
The next event in that long day was a low-level reconnaissance mission flown by six F8U-1P Crusader jets. Two of the jets aborted the mission early due to mechanical problems, but the remaining four continued on their course. As the fighters passed over the San Cristóbal and Sagua la Grande missile sites, Cuban ground forces shot at the planes with anti-aircraft guns and small arms. One plane was hit by a 37mm shell but, fortunately, it returned safely. Earlier that morning, Castro lost his nerve and ordered his troops to fire at American aircraft. With each new flight the Americans were gaining valuable information for an invasion Castro believed to be only 24 to 72 hours away.
However, the chances of a peaceful solution was short lived when a second letter from Khrushchev arrived at the White House ticker. This letter, formally written, was much more demanding. Some members of EXCOM speculated that hard-liners had pressured Khrushchev to take a more aggressive position. The letter was also publicly broadcast in order to reduce communication delays but the broadcast also raised the stakes. The two countries no longer had the luxury of private negotiations. Khrushchev wrote:
"Our purpose has been to help Cuba develop as its people desire. You want to relieve your country from danger. Your rockets are stationed on Turkey. You are worried about Cuba. You say it worries you because it lies at a distance of 90 miles from the United States. Turkey lies next to us! I make this proposal. We agree to remove from Cuba offensive means (nuclear missiles). The United States on its part, will remove its similar means from Turkey"
Kennedy was confused. It was then up to him to decide which letter he'll believe. Turkey was a NATO ally. Kennedy would not accept a 'trade-off' of Cuban missiles for Turkish missiles. But if America attacked Cuba, might Russia do the same to Turkey? This letter sent EXCOM reeling. Khrushchev's previous proposal had not mentioned Turkey. Why did it do so now? Kennedy feared having someone go public with the Turkey proposal because it could potentially ruin his career. If the U.S. buckled under pressure and removed its missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally, the whole alliance could falter. A political enemy would have a field day holding Kennedy responsible for the Turkey proposal. You can sense the President's caution in suggesting the idea of a Turkey-for-Cuba missile trade in this transcript of an EXCOM meeting. The President was stuck. Dreading conflict, he couldn't demand more of Khrushchev. Fearing political pressure at home, he couldn't give in on the question of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Then, Robert Kennedy had an inspiration: why not ignore the second letter and respond only to the first? Source D4 emphasises the fact that a possible nuclear war was close to taking place and could not be stopped, even by the very two people that started it.
Tension was running very high. Robert Kennedy remembers:
"There was a feeling that the noose was tightening. The President's mind went to other areas of the world. What was going to occur in Berlin, in Turkey, if attacked Cuba? We were deciding really for all mankind. There were arguments - sharp disagreements. Everyone was tense, some were near exhaustion - all were weighed down with worry. I suggested that we ignore the latest Khrushchev letter and respond to his earlier letter's proposal."
President Kennedy took up his brother's idea - to him it seemed the only viable option. His reply accepted Khrushchev's first 'offer'.
"1) You agree to remove weapons systems from Cuba and to halt their further introduction into Cuba
2) We agree a) to remove the quarantine measures now in effect. b) to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba."
It was agreed that if Russia had not responded to the letter by Monday, 29 October, America would invade Cuba. Was the world one day away from a Third World War?
Early in the morning, Khrushchev met with a circle of his advisers outside of Moscow. At the opening of the meeting it got worse. A general entered and read a statement he had just received that Kennedy was going to make an address to the nation at 5:00 p.m. At that point, Khrushchev feared the worst. That address could be the announcement that an invasion was already underway. Khrushchev was not prepared to start a war, therefore he and his advisors drafted a letter with the utmost urgency. Upon completion, the letter was rushed at full speed to the broadcasting station. Khrushchev hoped the message would reach Kennedy before 5:00 p.m.
Esteemed Mr. President:
I have received your message of October 27, 1962. I express my satisfaction and gratitude for the sense of proportion and understanding of the responsibility borne by you at present for the preservation of peace throughout the world... In order to complete with greater speed the liquidation of the conflict... the Soviet Government... in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as "offensive," and their crating.
The message, received effectively ended the crisis. The reaction among the EXCOM members was mixed. Most were relieved, but others, especially the Joint Chiefs dubbed the announcement a ploy by Khrushchev to buy more time. General Curtis LeMay suggested that the United States "go in and make a strike on Monday anyway." Kennedy, on the other hand, knew the response was genuine. Almost immediately he drafted a response. The Cuban Crisis was over. The world heaved a sigh of relief. On Cuba, within two months, no trace was left of the missiles of October. In return for the removal of all Soviet missiles from Cuba, Kennedy agreed to remove some of the hundreds of US missiles in Europe that were targeted at the Soviet Union. Accordingly, in November 1962 the Soviets dismantled their weapons on the island and a few months later the US government reciprocated by withdrawing missiles from Britain, Italy and Turkey.
It took 7 hours to transmit letters from one to another so it could have risked nuclear war. As a result of the missile crisis they set up a hotline to communicate between Kremlin and the White House. Neither side wanted to risk a nuclear war over poor communication. Both leaders were under extreme pressure in the crisis where both leaders pushed each other to the end. They call this brinkmanship. At the end of the crisis they both agreed not to do it again. On July 1963 a nuclear test ban treaty was signed. This ruled out future testing of nuclear weapons in the armosphere and underwater. Source A1 shows that this type of testing would be a thing of the past. This represented the most significant improvement in international relations in a decade. All of this lead to the likely hood of a possibly peaceful world.
Kennedy was seen as a saviour of the world because by preventing missiles from permanently being installed on Cuba he had avoided nuclear war. He had hidden the weaknesses that Khrushchev thought he possesed e.g. the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs incidents. He had showed US assertiveness by not breaking down. Kennedy was strategic becaue he was always willing to give Khrushchev the next move by working out his next moves in advance. He had worked this way not make Khrushchev look weak but to give him (Khrushchev) a way out. Kennedy did this because Khrushchev might have acted in an aggresive way. Kennedy had created a situation where both of the leaders would have to back down e.g. he replied to the first letter rather than the second one. The US also decided to remove their missiles from Turkey but in secret. Kennedy remained calm throughout the crisis.
Khrushchev was also diplomatic because he didn't get angry when Kennedy responded to the first letter rather than the second. Khrushchev also appeared victorious as his actions saved Cuba from US domination and communism has still survived there to this day. Khrushchev agreed to end the communist race even thought he was very competitive and to back down was extremely embarrasing for him. The whole world was watching him back down including China, their communist allies. He also lost the personality clash with the inexperienced Kennedy. Khrushchev was politically experienced whearas Kennedy was the opposite.
It could be considered a joint effort as both leaders wanted peace although both had started brinkmanship. Khrushchev had started brinkmanship by placing his weapons on Cuba. Kennedy had started brinkmanship by keeping producing nuclear weapons therefore widening the missile gap. Kennedy had also backed the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. However, neither side was prepared to risk a nuclear disaster. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Robert Kennedy is also to be considered as being partly the saviour of the crisis because he was responsible for the quaratine of Cuba and it was his idea to respond to Khrushchev's first letter - the non-military, non-violent movement and avoided the military option.
Looking back on the crisis, Robert McNamara claims the world was one step away from nuclear war. That step he said, was the President ordering the invasion of Cuba. What the military didn't know then was that they had grossly underestimated Soviet and Cuban force strength. Military intelligence calculated 10,000 Soviet troops on the island plus an additional 100,000 Cubans. We now know that the actual numbers were much higher. The Soviets had 43,000 combat-ready soldiers and Castro had mobilized 270,000 Cubans to fight. Plans for the American invasion called for a first day air strike consisting of 1,080 sorties and an amphibious landing of 180,000 troops. Those troops would have been surprised by the strength of the resistance they found on the island. Had Kennedy gone ahead with the invasion, casualties on both sides would have been much higher. Furthermore, EXCOM was also unaware of the tactical nuclear weapons stationed along Cuba's shore. Khrushchev had also given a standing order to his generals that if he couldn't be reached in the event of an invasion, they had the authority to launch the battlefield nuclear weapons. If Kennedy had invaded, the outnumbered Soviets would have used their nuclear weapons and then Kennedy would have had no choice but to retaliate with American nuclear devices. The response would likely have been an attack on Soviet soil.
However, we can say that all three men prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from turning into World War Three even thought it was only two of them that had started it though these men had been caught up in a Cold War that had been developing over many decades. Eventually, the three men established peace and the crisis ended with a positive outcome. However, on November 22nd, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Eleven months later Premier Khrushchev was removed from office by communist hard liners. You can't help but wonder what would have happened if these two men had stayed in power. Perhaps the same two people who brought us so close to nuclear war, now changed by that experience, could have brought us far from it.